Connect with us

Commentary

W.Va. Teacher: We Went on Strike to Fight Retaliation, Not Reform

Published

on

Striking West Virginia teachers and supporters rally outside the House of Delegates chambers Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Teachers are opposed to a complex education bill making its way through the Legislature. Photo: John Raby/AP Photo

My great-grandfather was a coal miner.

He dropped out of school to mine coal at age 14, and he supported his family with his wages from the mines and what he could grow on the small farm I would one day grow up on. And while he never regretted his decision to go into the mines–he famously said he liked the hard work–he knew that for his children and grandchildren, education was the path forward.

My great-grandfather used his wages from the mines to buy playground equipment for the one room school my grandfather attended, and when my grandfather and his sisters were high school age, my great-grandfather led a local movement to petition the school board to send busses to his small mountain community in North Central West Virginia so his own kids could be transported to the local public high school.

My grandfather and his sisters all went on to graduate from high school, attend college and work in education. I have often wondered if that would have been the case if my great-grandfather hadn’t fought to get that school bus up our mountain. My grandfather went on to be a celebrated teacher and coach in Barbour County, West Virginia, and three of his own children, my mother included, carried on this family tradition of working in public education.

I have been an English teacher in Berkeley County, West Virginia, for the last 15 years, but I have spent my life in conversations about public education in this state, and I know now what my great-grandfather knew over 75 years ago when he petitioned the school board to provide busses to that small, mountain community: that our path forward in this state is to make sure every student has access to quality, public education. Strong schools and educational opportunities build strong communities.

Jessica Salfia poses next to a parade float. Photo: Kristen Uppercue/100 Days in Appalachia

The problem is, in recent years in West Virginia, teachers have been fighting an uphill battle to create those strong schools. Public education funding is scarce, teacher pay in West Virginia is among the lowest in the nation and last year increasing insurance premiums and skyrocketing deductibles were going to mean that many educators across the state were going to experience a loss in pay. It was too much.

Teachers in this state have consistently been asked to turn two fishes and five loaves into enough to feed thousands. We have worked on the front lines of poverty and opioid epidemics with not enough books and supplies, sometimes not enough heat in our schools, not enough time to plan and collaborate and still we have worked miracles. The innovation and successes in our schools have happened despite the West Virginia state government.

But in February 2018, those sacrifices were being overlooked. So, I along with 20,000 teachers and school service personnel across this great state walked off the job. That work action lasted nine emotionally charged days, and, for many of us, it was not a fight about salary, but about respect. It was fight about health care and what we value as public educators. It was fight about what we want for our schools and our state. It was a fight for the soul of West Virginia.

We returned from the picket lines and the halls of the West Virginia Capitol to our classrooms with a 5 percent pay raise and a promise to find a dedicated revenue source for PEIA, the state’s Public Employee Insurance program.I never imagined after I returned to my classroom last March that I would walk out of it again so soon.

But as the months ticked by and I watched the PEIA Taskforce spin its wheels trying to fix the funding problems of our health insurance system, I could feel the collective frustration of public employees growing. I attended and spoke at public hearings on PEIA. I watched an educational revolution of teacher strikes sweep the nation, and I wondered how our Legislature would address our concerns in 2019, concerns over health care and education reform.

The first major piece of education legislation to be presented in the 2019 session was Senate Bill 451, a massive “omnibus” bill that did include another pay raise and additional funding for PEIA, but also damaging measures to privatize public education in West Virginia. It was clear this bill was retaliatory in measure. It was a complete overhaul of our education system — one that had been written without the input of a single teacher or school administrator. In fact, most of the language appeared to be lifted from the ALEC website, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative bill factory responsible for legislation like Florida’s “stand your ground” law. To add insult to injury, these damaging measures were wrapped up in words like “empowerment” and “reform.”

Proponents of this bill claimed these initiatives — the dismantling of public education and the creation of charter schools and Education Savings Accounts– were about “choice” and creating competition for our public schools. I listened while elected officials gave speeches on the Senate floor and called West Virginia public education “failing” and compared the great work of my life to a “fatal disease.”

For many educators, the implication that any struggle or inadequacies our schools or students might be experiencing is simply because we don’t have enough “competition” is frankly insulting. Teachers do the work they do because they are called to it. And if our legislators truly wanted to know how to fix a struggling school, the educators in them could tell you.  

But it soon became clear that teacher voices would not be valued in this conversation about education.

I watched as for-profit charter school lobbyists were given endless time to present to the House Education Committee. A public hearing was scheduled and I drove 300 miles to the state capital to speak only to have my mic cut off at exactly 70 seconds. That was the time I was allotted. But later that day, school choice lobbyists were once again given endless time to speak to the Senate Education Committee.

This bill was not really about reform. It was about finding a way to use education to line the pockets of out-of-state corporate interests. There is a long history of folks coming to Appalachia and taking. They’ve taken our coal and our timber and left us with flat mountain tops and polluted water. And now, those out-of-state corporate interests have looked around and the only thing left to take? Our education system.

And this isn’t just happening in West Virginia. It’s happening across our country. Teachers in Denver went on strike for the first time in 25 years, ending last week after three days on the picket lines urging officials to pay them a fair wage. Los Angeles Unified Public schools just last month ended a nine day strike, instating a moratorium on the creation of any new charter schools because of teachers’ demands for a better system for their students, a system that protects them from the interests of for-profit schools.

West Virginia teachers filled the halls of the state Capitol once again this week, striking over a proposed education reform bill. Photo: Brad McElhinney/WV MetroNews

The idea that education should and can be run by business should terrify us all. Because we aren’t dealing with products, we’re dealing with children. All over this country charters schools have closed suddenly — some mid-year — because they were “underperforming.” This is the danger of having a “CEO” instead of a principal or a teacher: the bottom line is not the wellbeing of our students or communities, but profit margins and success rate. And as I heard one brave West Virginia student put it at the public hearing on West Virginia’s “omnibus reform” bill: when you say schools should compete, you are saying that some schools should win and others should lose.

Teachers in West Virginia are not against reform. In fact, we’ve been advocating for it for years. But real reform doesn’t look like a for-profit education system. It looks like funding for professional development and time to plan and collaborate. It looks like more school counselors and nurses. It looks like funding for programs to combat our opioid epidemic and mental health crisis. It looks like competitive salaries and adequate health care. It looks like the recruitment of teachers of color and the expansion of teacher education programs.

But this bill was not really about reform. It was about retaliation.

So for the second time in two years, West Virginia teachers, bus drivers, and school service personnel walked off the job. It’s been scarier the second time around. No one was sure if the public support would be as strong this time, especially since the fight is so much more nuanced. We were battling a bill that included a pay raise after all. But if our state government wants to give us 30 pieces of silver in exchange for the dismantling of public education in West Virginia, then they can keep it. And perhaps they will.

The battle to protect our state’s public education system from the outside interests that are attempting to “reform” it isn’t over. Teachers and bus drivers, counselors and nurses will return to their workplaces in West Virginia Thursday with the hope that our lawmakers won’t attempt to revive a proposal that sells our public education system to the highest bidder.

It’s what my great-grandfather — a coal miner with no high school education — knew when he stood before the local board of education and demanded school busses for his mountain community.  Education should not be politicized or partisan. It shouldn’t be about profits. It should be about building stronger communities and about making sure that all our children, not just a select few, are getting the quality education they deserve.

Jessica Salfia, co-editor of the book “55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike,” is a writer, activist and teacher at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and WVCTE Blog.

Commentary

Commentary: As The Coal Industry Shrinks, Miners Deserve a Just Transition – Here’s What It Should Include

Published

on

Coal miners return on a buggy after working a shift underground at the Perkins Branch Coal Mine in Cumberland, Oct. 15, 2014. Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman

Murray Energy, one of the biggest private U.S. coal companies, has become the fifth coal company to file for bankruptcy in 2019. Union leaders and many elected officials worry that in addition to the 7,000 miners on Murray’s payroll, this step could threaten the solvency of the United Mine Workers of America pension fund, which supports over 100,000 retired miners and fully vested workers.

Whether people support or oppose the Trump administration’s efforts to prop up the coal industry, one point of agreement is that shifting from coal to cleaner fuels threatens struggling coal-dependent communities. Murray Energy’s bankruptcy is the latest reminder that it is past time to discuss a just transition for coal miners.

My legal scholarship examines environmental decision-making processes, with a focus on law and the urban-rural divide. In my recent research, I’ve dug into the origin and meaning of the idea of a just transition for workers.

My findings suggest that there is a strong ethical case for pursuing just transitions through policy. The challenge is to ensure that these policies nurture programs and institutions with lasting effects, rather than merely offering short-term band-aids.

More than half of the U.S. coal mines operating in 2008 have closed. EIA

What is a just transition?

There is no single definition of a just transition, but in the coal context, it generally means finding alternative ways to support struggling communities that are losing their traditional livelihoods.

The concept was popularized in the 1970s by progressive labor activist Tony Mazzocchi, who worked in the auto, steel and construction industries before becoming an organizer. He believed that workers who had contributed to the public welfare through hazardous work deserved help in transitioning away from their difficult jobs. He first called for “full income and benefits for life” for such workers, but eventually changed his demand to four years of income and education benefits. Even then, his efforts met substantial opposition.

Mazzochi had ties to labor and the environmental movements, and his activism blended these concerns. Today scholars are embracing the idea that government should consider the economic impacts of transitions such as the shift to low-carbon fuels, especially when workers are displaced by public initiatives.

In my view, it’s unfortunate that it has taken so long for mainstream attention to focus on the fate of coal workers. For communities dependent on fossil fuels, particularly in regions like Appalachia with few other major industries, today’s job losses are just the latest phase of a long decline.

No simple formula

There is no road map for transitioning communities away from coal, but there are lessons from history. For example, American workers faced losses from international competition when the U.S. joined liberalized trade agreements in the second half of the 20th century.

In response, Congress passed legislation in 1974 that established the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which still operates today. It provides aid primarily to factory workers who can show that they have lost jobs or wages because of increased international competition. Eligible workers petition the U.S. Department of Labor for benefits administered through state agencies, including cash payments, retraining and assistance with relocation and job searches.

However, research shows that even with this support, affected workers were substantially worse off than they had been before the shift in trade policy. Scholars have criticized trade adjustment programs as an ineffective band-aid. In 2008 one of the program’s directors called it “too little assistance too late to those in need.”

Funding for environmental cleanup and business development can help Appalachian communities diversify away from coal.

Another example, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, was developed in connection with the decision to provide federal protection for the Northern spotted owl. Officials recognized that restrictions on logging would hurt the Pacific Northwest timber industry, which was already declining.

The plan provided direct federal subsidies to traditional timber counties to offset logging reductions on public lands. However, these payments have been declining since 2006, contributing to a fiscal crunch in rural Oregon. Local opposition to tax increases, which could support local government services and community planning, hasn’t helped.

Another initiative, the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, achieved more mixed results. In 1998 the four largest U.S. tobacco companies executed a major legal settlement with states suing them to recover tobacco-related health costs. The agreement required tobacco companies to provide billions of dollars in economic assistance to farmers to ease their transition away from growing tobacco.

Each participating farmer received an average of US$17,000 through the program, which ran from 2005 to 2014. The top 10 percent of recipients received 75 percent of the payments. Some assessments concluded that these cash injections boosted struggling rural communities. But farmers arguably have more autonomy than many other kinds of workers, since they can opt to grow different crops, so this example may have limited relevance for coal miners.

County economic status in Appalachia, fiscal year 2020. Appalachian Regional Commission, CC BY-ND

Recent transition aid for coal communities

The most defined federal effort so far to help coal communities economically is the POWER Plan, launched by the Obama administration. This program directs funds into Appalachian communities to assist displaced workers, build regional institutions’ capacity and fund economic development programs.

From 2015 through 2019 the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency supported by federal, state and local governments, has invested over $190 million in 239 projects across Appalachia. Although President Trump often calls himself a friend to coal miners, his first budget request proposed terminating the commission. Congressional supporters restored its funding.

It is popular for commentators to propose initiatives such as retraining coal workers for solar or natural gas jobs. In my view, this approach is simplistic: A just transition should focus on sustainably rebuilding regional economies, and should be informed by input from people who are affected.

Subsidies to local governments and benefits for individuals are a start but should be better funded and implemented than trade adjustment assistance. They should build local institutions, such as schools and planning agencies, that can contribute to sustainable economic diversification – something the Northwest Forest Plan failed to do. And they should distribute benefits more equitably than the compensation program for tobacco farmers.

Along with job retraining programs, POWER is funding infrastructure development, public services and new educational institutions. But a just transition will require substantial resources and effort. It remains to be seen whether federal efforts will rise to the challenge.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Ann Eisenberg, Assistant Professor of Law, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue Reading

Commentary

Climate Activism Could Be Swaying Public Opinion In The US

Published

on

The March for Science on April 22, 2017 combined calls for scientific integrity and climate action. Photo: Kevin Wolf/AP

Climate activists walked out of classrooms and workplaces in more than 150 countries on Friday, Sept. 20 to demand stronger action on climate change. Mass mobilizations like this have become increasingly common in recent years.

I’m a scholar of environmental communication who examines how people become engaged with solving dilemmas such as climate change, and how activism motivates others to take action. A new study I worked on suggests that large rallies, such as this youth-led Climate Strike, could be influencing public opinion.

Conflicting signs

For anyone in the U.S. who has been following climate change news for years, it could be easy to conclude that these protests don’t have an impact. After all, no major environmental legislation has been signed into law in this country in decades.

Further, in 2016 a near-majority of U.S. voters elected a president who rejects the scientific evidence on climate change.

On the other hand, concern about climate change is rising. So is media coverage about global warming, notably including CNN’s seven-hour town hall on the topic with 10 Democratic presidential candidates.

To see whether rallies, such as the Global Climate Strike are contributing to this change in public opinion in a measurable way, I partnered with Pennsylvania State University psychologist Janet K. Swim and Michael L. Lengieza, a graduate student. We collected public opinion data before and after major protests.

Seeing activists in a less negative light

We conducted surveys to assess public opinion before and after the March for Science – which had a wide-ranging agenda that included climate change – and the 2017 People’s Climate March, which took place on back-to-back Saturdays in April 2017. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the main protests in Washington, as affiliated marches occurred in other cities in the U.S. and around the world.

Nearly 600 people around the country, including some who had heard very little or even nothing at all about the mobilizations, answered our series of detailed questions. We tried to gauge their perceptions of climate activists and faith in humanity’s ability to come together on issues like climate change.

Half of the survey-takers completed their survey right before the first protest and the other half did it after the second one. Both groups represented broad ranges in age, education level and political beliefs.

The responses suggested that many Americans may have changed their opinion about the climate change movement around that time – in the spring of 2017.

For instance, the percentage who viewed climate activists as “aggressive” fell by 10 percentage points, from 74 percent to 64 percent. Similarly, survey respondents viewed activists as less “arrogant” and “dictatorial” after the protests occurred.

We consider this finding important because other research has suggested that people who view climate activists in this negative manner are more motivated to speak out against policies aimed at slowing the pace of global warming, such as the two carbon tax initiatives that voters have rejected in Washington state despite its Democratic majority.

Feeling less pessimistic about the future

Although most survey-takers said they had heard about the protests, few actually knew someone who had participated in one. Wondering whether the way that media covered these events might influence how people reacted, we looked into whether Americans who prefer liberal-leaning media outlets, such as MSNBC, reacted differently than those who rely on conservative-leaning media, such as Fox News.

We detected some interesting and unexpected patterns.

Before we looked at the data, we thought that differences in the media coverage might further the political polarization of climate change. We were surprised when we saw that the marches appeared to have the opposite effect.

In particular, the protests may have made consumers of conservative-leaning news more hopeful. Before them, consumers of conservative-leaning news were more likely to say they doubted the ability of humanity to work together on big problems like climate change.

After the marches, fewer people of all kinds expressed pessimism. In particular, consumers of conservative media became less likely to agree to statements like this one: “People are too selfish to cooperate and to fix big problems.” Before the protests, 60 percent of them agreed with that statement. Afterward, only 45 percent did.

The limits to this influence

Even so, the mobilizations did not seem to sway public opinion in every way that the organizers might have hoped. In particular, despite the large numbers participating, the two waves of protests did not appear to have any measurable impact on convincing Americans that taking community action on climate change was a normal or common thing for people to do.

Specifically, there was no change in the perceived number of people in their community or in the entire country that survey-takers believed engaged in collective action, such as environmental activism or voting for politicians that support environmental issues.

We suspect the people we surveyed did not consider the marchers to be similar to average people – like themselves.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see whether these shifts in public perceptions translate into shifts in consumer purchasing habits and public policy.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Nathaniel Geiger, Assistant Professor of Communication Science, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue Reading

Commentary

Is Rural America Having a Moment in Democratic Policy Proposals?

Published

on

At the Iowa State Fair, candidates were everywhere. Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr, Creative Commons

The 2020 Presidential election is not likely to hinge on nuanced rural policy positions and party platforms. That doesn’t seem to matter to the women and men running for the Democratic nomination, many of whom are campaigning hard for big investments and jobs in rural infrastructure, agriculture, clean energy and health care.

When it comes to presidential elections, many people feel that rural issues get ignored . Mainstream media coverage of campaigns and voter opinion tends to focus on the horserace between political parties, geographic divisions and the moving weathervane of “electability.” Rural topics, with the exception of commercial and corporate agriculture, traditionally don’t get much mention.

Things seems different this year. Last week I spent a lot of time reading and comparing statements and policy positions among the diverse field of Democratic candidates. Unlike any time I’ve seen in 20 years of rural advocacy and economic development work, many of the candidates are developing serious and innovative rural policy ideas that deserve more attention.

A large number of campaigns are embracing infrastructure and telecommunications improvements in rural communities, for instance, and are trying to differentiate themselves through specific budget and policy goals. Numerous candidates are calling for aggressive changes in the health-care sector to address a crisis in rural health care facilities and availability. Most of them support agricultural reforms and conservation programs that would decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

As we were compiling our initial set of candidate position reporting at the Daily Yonder, there was a flurry of activity on rural issues just last Wednesday and Thursday. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) all released comprehensive, detailed rural economic development platforms while campaigning in rural Iowa. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill designed to address climate change through conservation-based farming practices, renewing the Civilian Conservation Corps and scaling up clean energy systems in rural communities. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, IN) unveiled his plan for improving rural healthcare and later released a comprehensive rural-policy plan.

A few of the innovative proposals that stick out for innovation and scope include the following:

  • ARPA-Ag, a science and innovation platform to decrease greenhouse gas emission from agriculture, Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Modeled after the U. S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the public-sector research and development initiative that helped create the internet and supercomputers, and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E that led to clean energy innovations during the Obama Administration, Inslee’s ARPA-Ag would attempt to decarbonize agriculture.  ARPA-Ag would expandd federal investment in “research, development, demonstration and deployment” of climate-friendly farming practices, while also reducing climate emission from the agricultural input sector. Inslee would also create a Next-Generation Clean Energy Extension Service to share the results, knowledge and resources for participating in ARPA-Ag and related efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.

Warren’s $85 billion rural broadband proposal states that, “One of the best tools for unlocking economic opportunity and advances in health care, like telemedicine, is access to reliable, high-speed Internet.” The package includes funding, incentives and regulatory changes that will allow public sector internet providers to compete head-to-head with private services. In addition, funding will be available to expand service to rural communities currently being ignored by the private sector. Eligible entities will be local governments, Native American tribes, rural electric cooperatives and rural telephone cooperatives among others.  Warren’s plan is to set-aside at least $5 billion funding for Native American tribal governments.  The $85 billion broadband plan seeks to address the rural internet access gap. “According to the FCC, in 2017, 26.4% of people living in rural areas and 32.1% of people living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps), compared to 1.7% in urban areas,” Warren’s plan states.

  • Rural Future Partnership Fund,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand is proposing $50 billion in public financing to fund multi-year, flexible, block grants to local communities with comprehensive rural revitalization strategies. Funds would be available for rural water systems, affordable housing, local food efforts, rural entrepreneurship and other rural economic development needs. The funding will target projects in rural communities with a history of persistent poverty, along with prioritizing cooperatively-owned enterprises. Gillibrand’s rural economic development plans also include the creation of a “Rural Future Corps” that identifies and trains rural young people and public servants, as well as supporting arts and cultural heritage-based efforts at job creation and local economic development.

REAP, the Renewable Energy for America Program, is a popular grant and loan program that supports installation and operation of renewable energy systems serving farmers and rural small business owners. Senator Booker recently proposed a $1 billion expansion of REAP as part of his Climate Stewardship Act. The program, in operation since 2009 with limited budgets averaging from $10-$50 million per year, has already been responsible for more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of renewable electricity production by participants, according to USDA. The Booker REAP expansion would provide a short-term boost to the already growing rural deployment of solar, wind and geothermal energy production. REAP expansion would likely result in huge increases in rural solar installations and energy efficiency improvements for farmers and rural small businesses throughout the nation.

I don’t want to pretend that a rural policy position paper is going to lead to the presidency, let alone get passed and implemented. Bold, aggressive policy proposals to expand rural economic development like these face a long and politically driven set of challenges.

The coalition of limited government activists, tax-cut proponents and white Christian conservatives that make up the bulk of the Republican Party are not likely to jump for joy. Within the Democratic Party, there is a large contingent of voices that repeatedly call for caution, moderation and fiscal conservatism. “How are we going to pay for it?” is often the mantra of the pundit and lobbyist class.

Still, while partisan and electoral politics are an ever-present barrier, rural people and organizations should take note that their consistent calls for more funding, resources and attention are working. Huge investments in rural broadband have been embraced by all of the Democrats in the race. (Broadband is one of the few rural development areas that the Trump administration has also supported.) Nearly all the candidates have called for aggressive antitrust action to curtail the market power of corporate agribusiness, a clear rejection of the hands-off approach during the Obama administration. The rural hospital closure crisis is being mentioned on the nationally televised debate stage. The climate crisis is being treated as a serious issue, with a “just transition” to cleaner agriculture, forestry and mining practices in the spotlight.

I’m not sure how to take these developments other than to report them as words on the page. Electoral politics, in my opinion, is all-too-often an incredibly important but ultimately frustrating popularity contest void of actual substance. Perhaps 2020 is going to be different, even if the innovative ideas for improving economies and quality-of-life in rural America is coming from the party that most mainstream political pundits describe as “urban.” Stay tuned.

Bryce Oates covers federal rural policy for the Daily Yonder.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

Continue Reading

Trending